Only a fool would discuss the latest Run the Jewels album without connecting it to the current climate.. considering all racists (the ones that discuss RTJ, raise your hands) are fools.
Now, it’s not impossible to fall into this trap and to my assumption the merit of Killer Mike and El-P’s pure skillset as rappers and notoriety as one of the last truly incendiary groups of our time could fill 1300 words without a single mention of their politics. But as much as the album works purely as a piece of music, separating RTJ4 from our current circumstances would inherently miss the point of what Run the Jewels stand for, strive for, and why the album works on so many levels.
RTJ4 arrives square in the middle of a pandemic and the widest scale protests America has ever seen. It was released for free (like their previous three), teased in October, gifted three days before its allotted release date, and their first written post-Trump. It’s about as socially conscious as it gets, and the obvious bangers in the vein of “Legend Has It” or “Blockbuster Night Part 2)” are absent, but that’s on purpose. There’s little to celebrate in 2020 and the only party Jamie and Mike are concerned with fucking up is preceded by Tea.
Killer Mike and EL-P have yet to make a subpar album, an unprecedented feat for two veterans who have been positioned on the outskirts of commercial rap for decades. Their synergy is undeniable, filling in two different ends of the spectrum and delivering on the same dynamic of intensity consistent with their best work. On opener “yankee and the brave” their partnership is billed as a buddy cop action flick while their promise to leave the world a less fucked up place than they found it is becoming more akin to an Avengers scale challenge. Though it doesn’t reach the heights and consistency of Run the Jewels 2, they’ve seemed to fully realize the characters they’ve taken on, intimidating, boastful, and most importantly angrier than ever.
Since their inception, Run the Jewels have used their music to reflect the disenfranchised side of America, but in an urban renaissance where To Pimp a Butterfly used spirituality and lineage to dissect the inner soul of those in plight, Run the Jewels are mad as hell and represent the abrasive side of activism. They’re the gut punch riot to Solange’s peaceful protest.
It’s inherently sad that lyrics written in the fall of 2019 months before George Floyd was horrifically murdered on a worlds stage aptly fit to June 2020. I mean fuck, this could have come out in 50 other weeks over the past 10 years where the police system exposed the commonplace of racist violence in America. “walkin in the snow”, a highlight thanks to Mike’s mechanical verse tracking how systemic racism effects the lives of its victims from birth was written about Eric Garner. Yet it applies to the killing of George Floyd the same way Do the Right Thing and Michael Stewart applied to Rodney King. In 2020, the failure of the system makes everyone an oracle.
“And you sit there in house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy”
Though equally matched by his counterpart, Killer Mike is sure to get the bulk of the attention. Conventional publicity for the record has taken a backseat to his tireless appearances educating talk show audiences via zoom call, its own kind of press junket. If Chuck D and Ice Cube embodied the spirit of Malcolm X, Killer Mike is best suited to take their place, nearly all of his rhyme and verse relaying to the current moment.
He speaks from the heart though aside from his music, it’s a mentality that recently put him in hot water with a decent faction of progressives. The weekend before its release, Mike took the podium calling for mobilization over rioting next to condescending ATL Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms which caused many to view him as a sellout. But while the appearance may have grassroots organizers scratching their heads make no mistake, this album is anti-police. Mike guns down police less than 90 seconds into the album and closes it out with a fuck you to the firing squad. Hell, it’s anti any establishment admittedly aligning their philosophy with the Joker in a world that mirrors the one hijacked by Bane.
The precipice of public protests, disgusting police response and ruthless corporate reaction gives its music serious power with new footage of police shooting rubber bullets and spraying tear gas at peaceful protests arriving every day. But the casualties do not end with police brutality as RTJ snipe pseudo Christian hypocrisy, fear mongering media, fake woke folk social media accounts, and the Tucker Carlsons who can’t grasp the meaning of defunding the police.
None of it would work if it weren’t backed by high quality music and RTJ4 is as in your face as anything cranked out before with a fist in the air. As no evil is spared, no area is left untouched: massive 808s, hard drum breaks, post-punk band Gang of Four, sirens, industrial growls, Pharrell.. El-P continues to impress due to his two handed abilities as a producer of unconventional sound and noise and as an MC in every way as effective as Mike. Criminally underrated as a beat maker, he creates a post-apocalyptic action movie world, one that would be inconceivable envisioned decades before but realistic through a contemporary lens. The frequencies could rattle any trunk yet affine no interest in club play. It’s cerebral without compromising hard edge, agitated without being preachy. Socially conscious, yet still a blast.
Which is why when the record does stray away from this sound and vision, it’s to the fault of the project as a whole. The flaccid “never look back” sees RTJ rapping under register in mid tempo and feels like a breather on an album that works best in rage mode. The cartoonish “out of sight” seems to fall flat as a middling party track with a wobbly 2 Chainz feature that’s no match for their tightness. To be fair, no feature, not even intended tour mate Zach De La Rocha could scene steal from RTJ who seem to keep getting better with age, more mature, and more focused.
It’s the rap album the moment demands, one that is implausible from separation from its situation, a sonic representation of an America that seemed to be falling apart at the seams before the death of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin catalyzed global protests. And honestly amidst our current statement of confusion and anger, who are you to argue?